I hate sarcasm. I’m also terrible at detecting it, and when I fall prey, I feel like a fool. (“Gullible is written on the ceiling? Where? No, really, show me.”) Rather than discounting my credibility, though, I think this helps explain why sarcasm is a humor plague. Because inviting people to feel like fools is its lifeblood.
Think about it: Sarcasm promotes the speaker at the expense of others. It functions by creating distance, undermining connections, and pushing people away. And, of course, it’s often mean.
I’m not alone in my predilections, and my comrades aren’t humorless drags either. A recent New York profile notes comedian Jenny Slate’s “allergy to sarcasm as a strategy. ‘I just really like it when things are earnest,’ she says earnestly.” In an April DoubleX Gabfest, writer and editor Noreen Malone asked — again, earnestly — “Why is irony a good thing? We should all just be sweeter.” (Irony is not the same thing as sarcasm, which involves a level of malice, but they’re both distancing mechanisms.) “I think that I tend to be a pretty sincere human being," says writer and editor Cord Jefferson, on a 2013 episode of the Longform podcast. "The way that the Internet has dialogues is often very insincere, and is a little bit tongue in cheek. That concerns me. I don’t ever want to lose my sincerity. I don't ever want to lose my ability to feel emotional about things that I write about. I don't ever want to have a distance from everything that I write."
Like I said, I’m not alone here. But, let’s deconstruct what sarcasm is exactly. Technically, it involves “the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really want to say, especially in order to insult someone, to show irritation, or to be funny.” Its etymology traces back to the Greek word "sarkazein," which means “to tear flesh.” So, basically, sarcasm involves using insincerity to rip someone a new one.
Why might a person revert to this kind of humor? Dr. Jenny Taitz, a clinical psychologist at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, has some ideas. First, there’s the obvious: “When we put someone else down in a judgmental way, it might make us feel better about ourselves,” she said. But, sarcasm isn’t the same thing as insult comedy. It involves saying the opposite of what you intend, which Taitz feels gets the jokester even more attention: “If you [say or write] a moderately mean thing, or a clearly mean thing, it wouldn’t garner as much attention as if you were sarcastic.”
More importantly, sarcasm’s insincerity offers a level of protection. At its most innocuous, sarcasm doesn’t hurt anyone, but simply distances the speaker from herself. When you say the opposite of what you mean, you don’t really have to own it, and you’ve got someplace to hide. You get attention, a laugh, and the upper hand — without having to stick your neck out.
“If you say something that’s a little hurtful, the receiver can respond accordingly, but if you say something sarcastic, the person may not be in a position where they can defend themselves,” Taitz pointed out.
And, of course, there is a way to be funny without leaning on sarcasm. Slate makes that point neatly in her profile, right after she champions earnest humor:
“Recently, some shitty pop star used one of my tweets in her Twitter bio. It was from New Year’s. ‘I’m happy to be a person, and I’m going to make the most of it.’... “Like, well, I hope you feel that way, but find a fucking way to say it yourself, idiot! Go to college!” She finished her wine before concluding, “I don’t like that. Especially when it’s something I had said, and it was a genuine, beautiful feeling that I had when I was on mushrooms.”
But, sarcasm is hot right now, particularly, as Cord Jefferson points out, online. Recently, the hashtag #yeahright was tweeted 1,705 times, while #not was tweeted 5,924 times. These are admittedly the crudest possible employments of sarcasm and tabulated by a crude measuring tool, to boot. I scrolled through my Twitter feed for a subtler, non-hashtagable example, and came across one within 30 seconds. The tweet featured a snapshot of a stranger on a subway platform, wearing headphones, while air-drumming with actual drumsticks and a skateboard at his feet, captioned: “Coolest guy ever or coolest guy ever?” The joke: Nope. Not coolest guy ever. Ten people favorited the tweet, presumably as a way of saying: We get it. This guy is trying way too hard. We, at the very least, are less toolish than he.
If, in person, sarcasm functions to protect the speaker from vulnerability, wouldn’t it serve especially well online? Social media provides a layer of distance and, at the same time, fosters a deceptive level of familiarity, an intimacy with potentially the entirety of the wired planet. Being direct and genuine with people you know is scary enough; being direct and genuine online means opening yourself up to a whole wide world of potential pain. In that sense, much like foregoing proper punctuation, sarcasm becomes a way of “pushing away any implication that we're overly invested or authoritative or serious.” So, maybe sarcasm on the Internet is appropriately protective — even smart?
Perhaps. But, do you want to live in a world where you're offered up, at all times, as fodder for strangers' sarcastic tweets? Where some rando passing you on the street is welcome to snap your photo and post it with cruel commentary, for her own gain? I don't — and in fact, authoring such posts often feels even worse. Maybe, in the seconds before we post a bit of mockery, we can pause and ask, "What am I so afraid of?" Or maybe just: "Why?"